SACRAMENTO — For weeks a PG&E transmission tower northeast of Paradise has loomed as a possible culprit in the Camp fire, triggering a slew of lawsuits and official investigations.
Now a new lawsuit by Camp fire survivors attempts to pinpoint the cause in the greatest detail yet, focusing on an uninsulated "jumper" cable that lawyers say came into contact with the steel tower and sparked the deadliest blaze in California history.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday on behalf of 34 survivors of the Nov. 8 disaster, says an extension arm jutting from the tower was supposed to have kept the electrified jumper cable from making contact with the tower itself. But somehow the extension failed and the cable touched the tower, leading to catastrophe. The fire has killed 85 people and destroyed much of the town of Paradise.
"Blazing hot molten materials dropped into the fine dead fuels below the conductor igniting the devastating Camp fire," said the lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court by Bay Area law firms Corey Luzaich de Ghetaldi & Riddle and Danko Meredith.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co., in a disclosure to the Public Utilities Commission a day after the fire destroyed most of Paradise, said a 115-kilovolt line experienced a problem in the vicinity of where the Camp fire was reported, about 15 minutes before the blaze started. The utility didn't offer specifics about the problem.
The report led to a steep decline in parent company PG&E Corp.'s stock price amid speculation that the company, already facing billions in claims from last year's wine country fires, could be in deep financial distress. The PUC has ordered PG&E to make broad changes in its corporate culture to improve safety procedures.
Dario de Ghetaldi, a partner in the Corey Luzaich firm, said in an interview Friday that his firm's investigators were allowed to inspect the tower, located in a remote area called Pulga about 10 miles northeast of Paradise. They found that Cal Fire and PG&E crews had partially disassembled the tower, removing sections of the jumper cable and the tower extension.
"They took that part of the structure into custody," de Ghetaldi said.
It's unclear what caused the cable to come into contact with the tower. NBC Bay Area, quoting unidentified sources, said a steel hook on the extension might have failed, allowing the jumper line to come free and make contact with the tower.
PG&E had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. The agency hasn't identified a cause of the fire yet.
The lawsuit faults "PG&E's failure to properly inspect and maintain the tower" and de Ghetaldi said the utility should have insulated the jumper cable. "PG&E does not use insulated lines between the transmission towers because of expense and added weight," he said in the interview. "If they had used insulated lines this damned fire would have never happened."
He added, however, that the lack of insulation "is the industry norm."